Dusty JohnstoneDusty Johnstone's research involved interviewing 10 women who had been sexually assaulted but didn't label their experience as such.

Acknowledging sexual assault focus of PhD thesis

Even though by the letter of the law they may have been sexually assaulted, an alarming number of women don’t label what happened to them as sexual assault or rape, according to Dusty Johnstone.

A post-doctoral teaching fellow in Women’s Studies, Dr. Johnstone recently defended her 250-page PhD dissertation, a qualitative study based on interviews of 10 women who technically had been sexually assaulted, but didn’t label their experiences as such.

Johnstone drew her participants from the Psychology department’s research participant pool. She identified women who had indicated in a previous survey they have had sex after being threatened or coerced, or when they were too intoxicated to provide consent, but in subsequent questions, replied that they had never been sexually assaulted or raped.

“These things are recognized as being infractions of the law, but culturally, they’re not always perceived as that,” said Johnstone, who noted previous research on the subject in the U.S. indicates as many as 83 per cent of assaulted women don’t label their experiences as rape.

Significant cultural barriers deter women from acknowledging they’ve been assaulted, said Johnstone, who completed her PhD in psychology under the tutelage of professor Charlene Senn. They include pervasive neoliberal rhetoric that emphasizes personal accountability to the point that when women are assaulted they believe they must somehow be responsible; and a rape culture that trivializes and justifies sexual violence.

“There’s dismissiveness about violence that contributes to a culture where it isn’t taken seriously,” she said. “We treat the little things as being benign, so we don’t recognize the more serious things as problematic.”

Now that Johnstone’s PhD is complete, she’s working on a teaching fellowship under the direction of Anne Forrest. Several years ago she helped launch the Bystander Initiative to prevent sexual assault, which was developed by Dr. Senn and Dr. Forrest.

“It’s based on the premise that everyone is positioned to be a bystander who can intervene to prevent a sexual assault from happening,” she said of the initiative, which includes a three hour workshop which teaches students the importance of speaking out against social norms that support sexual assault and coercion, how to recognize and safely interrupt situations that could lead to sexual assault, and how to be an effective and supportive ally to survivors.

A number of peer facilitators have already been trained to deliver the curriculum to about 600 students in 24 workshops over a two-week period beginning in early November, Johnstone said. Her fellowship will be focused on how the program changes the attitudes, values and behaviours of people who have participated in the program.

Johnstone will discuss her work when she appears today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.